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Tom O’ Bedlams
by [?]

The history of a race of singular mendicants, known by the name of Tom o’ Bedlams, connects itself with that of our poetry. Not only will they live with our language, since Shakspeare has perpetuated their existence, but they themselves appear to have been the occasion of creating a species of wild fantastic poetry, peculiar to our nation.

Bethlehem Hospital formed, in its original institution, a contracted and penurious charity;[1] its governors soon discovered that the metropolis furnished them with more lunatics than they had calculated on; they also required from the friends of the patients a weekly stipend, besides clothing. It is a melancholy fact to record in the history of human nature, that when one of their original regulations prescribed that persons who put in patients should provide their clothes, it was soon observed that the poor lunatics were frequently perishing by the omission of this slight duty from those former friends; so soon forgotten were they whom none found an interest to recollect. They were obliged to open contributions to provide a wardrobe.[2]

In consequence of the limited resources of the Hospital, they relieved the establishment by frequently discharging patients whose cure might be very equivocal. Harmless lunatics thrown thus into the world, often without a single friend, wandered about the country, chanting wild ditties, and wearing a fantastical dress to attract the notice of the charitable, on whose alms they lived. They had a kind of costume, which I find described by Randle Holme in a curious and extraordinary work.[3]

“The Bedlam has a long staff, and a cow or ox-horn by his side; his clothing fantastic and ridiculous; for being a madman, he is madly decked and dressed all over with rubins (ribands), feathers, cuttings of cloth, and what not, to make him seem a madman, or one distracted, when he is no other than a wandering and dissembling knave.” This writer here points out one of the grievances resulting from licensing even harmless lunatics to roam about the country; for a set of pretended madmen, called “Abram men,” a cant term for certain sturdy rogues, concealed themselves in their costume, covered the country, and pleaded the privileged denomination when detected in their depredations.[4]

Sir Walter Scott first obligingly suggested to me that these roving lunatics were out-door pensioners of Bedlam, sent about to live as well as they could with the pittance granted by the hospital.

The fullest account that I have obtained of these singular persons is drawn from a manuscript note transcribed from some of Aubrey’s papers, which I have not seen printed.

“Till the breaking out of the civil wars, Tom o’ Bedlams did travel about the country; they had been poor distracted men, that had been put into Bedlam, where recovering some soberness, they were licentiated to go a begging; i.e., they had on their left arm an armilla, an iron ring for the arm, about four inches long, as printed in some works.[5] They could not get it off; they wore about their necks a great horn of an ox in a string or bawdry, which, when they came to a house, they did wind, and they put the drink given to them into this horn, whereto they put a stopple. Since the wars I do not remember to have seen any one of them.” The civil wars, probably, cleared the country of all sorts of vagabonds; but among the royalists or the parliamentarians, we did not know that in their rank and file they had so many Tom o’ Bedlams.

I have now to explain something in the character of Edgar in Lear, on which the commentators seem to have ingeniously blundered, from an imperfect knowledge of the character which Edgar personates.

Edgar, in wandering about the country, for a safe disguise assumes the character of these Tom o’ Bedlams; he thus closes one of his distracted speeches–“Poor Tom, Thy horn is dry!” On this Johnson is content to inform us, that “men that begged under pretence of lunacy used formerly to carry a horn and blow it through the streets.” This is no explanation of Edgar’s allusion to the dryness of his horn. Steevens adds a fanciful note, that Edgar alludes to a proverbial expression, Thy horn is dry, designed to express that a man had said all he could say; and, further, Steevens supposes that Edgar speaks these words aside; as if he had been quite weary of Tom o’ Bedlam’s part, and could not keep it up any longer. The reasons of all this conjectural criticism are a curious illustration of perverse ingenuity. Aubrey’s manuscript note has shown us that the Bedlam’s horn was also a drinking-horn, and Edgar closes his speech in the perfection of the assumed character, and not as one who had grown weary of it, by making the mendicant lunatic desirous of departing from a heath, to march, as he cries, “to wakes, and fairs, and market-towns–Poor Tom! thy horn is dry!” as more likely places to solicit alms; and he is thinking of his drink-money, when he cries that “his horn is dry.”